Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Race, Poverty, History, Adoption, and Child Abuse: Connections

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Race, Poverty, History, Adoption, and Child Abuse: Connections

Article excerpt

Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic Books, 2001. x + 349 pages. $26.00 cloth; $16.50 paper.

E. Wayne Carp, ed., Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. $57.50 cloth.


Professor Dorothy Roberts, the Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law at Northwestern University Law School, has written a compelling book on the inadequacies of the contemporary child welfare system, focusing on its differential impact on African-American and white children. She argues that the child welfare system has systematically dismantled the African-American family. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001) is utterly persuasive in documenting how the foster care system disproportionately and seriously affects and harms black families and children, including both the decision to remove children and the length of stay in foster care. In the past, Roberts has written compellingly about the role race plays in criminal law, reproduction, and other contexts.1 Nonetheless, I am not completely persuaded that the child protective system deliberately dismantles black families.2 Class, rather than race, still seems to me to be one of the dominant motivations for exposing children to the child welfare system, although, of course, class and race in this country are closely related.

In Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (2002), Professor E. Wayne Carp, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, offers an edited collection of nine articles on the history of adoption, with contributions ranging from an examination of adoption in 19th-century literature to an analysis of the mid-20th-century effort by adoption agencies to create the perfect family.3 The scholarly interest of the contributors ranges from history to sociology to literature. Carp's goal is to identify and develop adoption history as a field unto itself, one that has broad implications for the definition of families and the relationship among parents, children, and the state (2002:7). Carp is uniquely situated to edit this anthology; in a previous book (1998), he eloquently analyzed the history of secrecy and confidentiality in adoption, as perhaps the only researcher to have obtained access to original adoption records.

Each book is an extremely ambitious undertaking; examined together, they provide compelling insights into our current and historical methods for treating adoption and abused and neglected children. Although the child protection system and adoption are often seen as separate-child protective services protects children from abuse and neglect, while adoption finds new families for children-they are, of course, integrally related. Adoption developed as the protection system came of age as a means for taking care of orphaned and abandoned children. Carp's anthology provides this history, and Roberts' book critiques the current status of the system.

Adoption developed as a way to care for white children; it has typically been less utilized in the African-American community for a variety of reasons (Solinger 1992; Berebitsky 2001). However, as Carp's anthology shows, adoption has been a means of socializing culturally disfavored children, removing them from their families of origin and placing them in middle-class homes, a practice not too different from what Roberts believes occurs today for black children. Indeed, even though adoption developed as a peculiarly American institution for myriad reasons, one of the primary impetuses for general adoption legislation was the growing number of children entering public care (Cahn, forthcoming [b]). We think of adoption in the context of infants, but it was not until after World War II that more infants than older children were adopted (Carp 2002), and the older children were frequently adopted after some contact with the child welfare system. Thus, the two systems have been intertwined for at least the past century and a half. …

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